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A Good Goodbye

February 27th, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

I’ve finished my last lessons with the third-grade students. The lesson was the second half of an epic two-class-period game I created to go out with a bang, and it was as successful as I could have reasonably hoped. I want to describe the game, but more importantly I want to recount the last few minutes with these classes.

With the smashing success of my Mario Kart game, I’d started thinking about how I might be able to put my video-game familiarity to further use, and my favorite video-game series of all time being The Legend of Zelda, that was the first idea that came to mind. In the games, a young hero named Link always has to go through several temples (or “dungeons”) in which he must battle monsters and solve puzzles to advance towards the final goal of defeating the evil villain (usually Ganondorf/Ganon) and rescue the princess Zelda. I started from the idea of making three “temples” in the form of worksheets and took it from there.


That germ of an idea exploded into a flood of creative lesson-planning that eventually took me an entire week’s worth of down-time at school—over 15 hours total—of preparation to arrive at the final product. I’d spent so much time making the lesson for the third-graders that I just went ahead and made one for the first-graders as well, and would have made one for the second-graders but there weren’t enough lessons left. To get through the entire game would take most teams two lesson-periods, and even then many wouldn’t finish at all.

I made three worksheets representing the three main temples: forest, fire, and water. I made an additional worksheet for Ganon’s tower and one last one for the battle with Ganon himself. I found Zelda fan artwork online to print pictures of the temples and put them on the board.

forest-temple       fire-temple

water-temple            ganon's castle

I also found pictures of various Links from various games (one for each team), as well as pictures of Ganondorf and Zelda for lamination. I found a ton of extra pictures as well just for the worksheets.

six-links     ganondorf zelda

I used the three main question types I used for the textbook review game I invented last year and reprised this year with both the third and first-graders: 1- Missing Word, 2- Fix Mistakes, and 3- Scrambled Sentence. The Forest Temple features mostly Missing Word, the Fire Temple Fix Mistakes, and the Water Temple Scrambled Sentence, while Ganon’s Tower was a mix of all three and Ganon himself was a multiple choice grammar quiz.

There were three rooms in each temple plus a room to fight the boss (by correctly translating three of the five Japanese words), and various extra puzzles to earn rupees (which you could use to purchase hints from O-sensei, the “Fortune Teller”) and recover lost life-energy hearts, which you’d lose every time you get an answer wrong. A member of the team would take the page to me each time they finished the room and if all the answers were correct I’d circle the key which allowed them to enter the next room.

Forest TempleFire TempleWater TempleGanon's Tower


As Link always gets a new item in each temple, I also made items in the form of hints for the different types of questions: Bow & Arrow (hints for Fix Mistakes), Iron Boots (hints for Scrambled Sentences), and the Clawshot (hints for Missing Words).

Once a team finished all three temples they’d get the “Master Sword” (a staple of every major Zelda game) which meant they could use their textbook for the rest of the game, something they wouldn’t be allowed to do beforehand.


Finally, to complete the atmosphere I brought in the bonus music CD included in the latest Zelda game release, 45-minutes of music from various Zelda games, perfect for the 45-minute lesson period.

When the lesson began we’d start the music and pass out a sheet with the story and the rules, which O-sensei translated into Japanese to make it easier for the students (it was already complicated enough). Here’s the cute little story I made up:

Many ages ago in the Kingdom of Hyrule, the evil lord Ganondorf kidnapped Princess Zelda and took over the kingdom. Ganondorf hated English and wanted to banish it from the land, so he sent monsters to the three great temples to steal words from many sentences, create mistakes in others, and scramble the rest. Only Link, the hero chosen by the Goddess, could enter the temples and set things right. He would have to defeat all three monsters to win the Master Sword, the only weapon capable of defeating Ganondorf in his true form, the beast Ganon.

Only about a third of the third-graders had played a Zelda game but that was enough to usually have one fan on each of the six teams. For some reason, a higher percentage of first-graders had played (about half to two-thirds) and they were more enthusiastic than the third-graders (they always are) but the third-graders enjoyed it enough once they got the hang of it.

When we ran out of time after the first lesson, I took pictures of the blackboard in order to “save their game” and I used the pictures to set everything up just as we’d left off when the next lesson period began. Here’s what the blackboard looked like during a typical first-grade lesson:

saved game

So far, only one to three teams per class have managed to finish in two periods. Those that finish early are rewarded with a Zelda word search puzzle I made for that contingency. I have no idea why, but Japanese students seem to love word search puzzles. Teams that finish early, while they’re perfectly entitled to just talk amongst themselves, have all worked diligently at the puzzle.

Word Search

For the third graders, I’ve ended about seven minutes early to give O-sensei and myself time for our final goodbye. A few weeks ago I asked O-sensei what an appropriate Japanese expression for saying something like “Goodbye and good luck” to the graduating class would be. That turned into me writing a whole farewell speech which O-sensei translated into Japanese and I memorized.

Having already memorized the school-song in Japanese I figured I could pull this off too, and that this might be even easier seeing as how it wasn’t just a bunch of vague Japanese concepts strung together but actual thoughts and feelings I wanted to express. I had to say goodbye to one of the classes a full week before the others, and only had two days to prepare for that, so while I still managed to get through it I stumbled and struggled quite a bit. Luckily it was 3-1, probably the most respectful class in the entire school, so that made it much easier on me. I had an extra week to get the speech much more solid in my mind before the other final lessons yesterday and today, and I’ve had much less trouble these times.

It’s a very strange sensation to give the speech. First of all, none of the students can believe it when I announce I’ll be giving the speech in Japanese. Suddenly any prior noise in the room stops and all eyes become glued on me. As I deliver the first few lines I get these smiles and nods of understanding from all around the room. The students are actually comprehending everything coming out of my mouth. That’s never actually happened before. They always just only partially understand or simply wait for the other teacher to translate. Now I’m actually speaking directly to them in their own language, and not only that but they’re hanging on my every word.

Some of it inevitably gets lost in the translation, but here is basically what I say in the speech:

—– Junior High School is the first school I’ve taught at as an ALT. For that, I think I’m very lucky. You’ve been wonderful students. I’m grateful for your warmth and enthusiasm. I will miss you all very much.

In my life I’ve been to many different places and met many kinds of people. My advice to you is to meet and communicate with as many different people from different places as you can. What you learn in school is important, but what you learn from other people can be priceless. I’ve learned a great deal from you. If you’ve learned even a little from me, it would make me happy.

Never forget this time. Your lives are about to change in so many ways, but the people around you now will always be a part of you. If I’m even a small part, I consider it a privilege.

Good luck with all of your future challenges. I wish you all success and happiness. Goodbye. Thank you very much.

I take my final bow and the classroom erupts in applause. It’s an indescribable feeling, and slightly different for each class. The first time I was just happy to have gotten through the whole speech, and the reality that I’d never stand in front of that group of students again didn’t sink in until after. My second-to-last class today was 3-6, one of the most unruly classes but somehow the one I’m most fond of. The reality of the impending end—the last lesson in a series of awesomely enjoyable lessons stretching back to September of last year—hit me early on and a lump was forming in my throat even during the Zelda game, making it hard for me to concentrate on correcting their work. Towards the end of my speech I got genuinely choked up, and was on the verge of tears as I said goodbye.

Like I did last year, I burned CDs for all the graduating students and I handed them out after my speech, giving me a chance to say goodbye to each student individually. It was a CD of six classic rock songs including my three favorite of all time: Comfortably Numb, Free Bird, and Stairway to Heaven. I suspect most of the students won’t get anything out of it but if it gets even a few of them to appreciate that music half as much as I do, I’ll really have had an influence on those students. But the music itself doesn’t matter nearly as much as the gesture, which almost all of them clearly appreciated.

My last lesson was the last period of the day. The original lesson had been scheduled for last week but cancelled due to a scheduling mistake. I’d asked O-sensei to ask the homeroom teacher if we could have five minutes during his homeroom or some other time to say goodbye, but he didn’t want to. Instead he asked T-sensei if she’d be willing to give me five minutes of her class time, and she said she’d give me the whole lesson. O-sensei had another lesson at the time, so I got to do one final lesson with T-sensei, my last lesson with the graduating class.

Kids change so fast. Last year 2-4 was the worst class in the school, the most unruly and disruptive by far. This year, as 3-4, they’ve mellowed significantly, and were just as respectful and appreciative of my farewell speech as 3-1. It’s also the class M- from the Speech Contest is in, and having now done the work of memorizing and delivering a speech in a foreign language myself, I have an even greater appreciation for the work she went through. And somehow I delivered the speech 100% flawlessly this time, better than I’d even been able to do practicing alone at home. The students were flabbergasted, and T-sensei could hardly believe it either. By now I had the speech so well-memorized that I was able to study the faces of the students and see their reactions to each line I delivered, recognizing that they understood and appreciated what I was saying.

When I was done handing out the CDs and said my final goodbye, the class president asked everyone to stand up and told me in English, “Thank you for everything,” and the rest of the class chimed in with a chorus of “Thank you”s as well. It was a beautiful moment, as wonderful a last memory of teaching the graduating class—the first and probably only class I’ll ever spend two school-years with—as I could have possibly hoped for.

And when I got back to the teacher’s room, two students from 3-5 came into the room to give me a little present that all the girls from that class had worked together to make for me. It was the word search puzzle I’d given the winning team, completely solved, and in the margins each student had written their own little ‘goodbye and thank you’ message in Japanese or English. That’s a piece of paper I’m sure I’ll never lose.

So now I’ll never teach the third-graders again, but at least it’s not yet the point where I’ll never see them again. The graduation ceremony is next Saturday, and I’ll inevitably see some of them in the halls in the mean-time, and of course during the practice for the ceremony and the ceremony itself. After that, if things are the same as last year, most of them will be back for the closing ceremony two weeks later and many will stick around to mingle afterwards.

And after that, there’s always the chance of randomly spotting them again at some future point. Just this past Saturday, I walked into a convenience store and the clerk there was a girl who graduated last year. She smiled the instant she saw me and when I got there asked if I remembered her. I told her I did but forgot her name, and she reminded me. It didn’t go beyond that but it was a nice little moment, a reminder that even when people are gone there’s no guarantee that they’re gone forever.

Of course, there’s the looming uncertainty of whether I’ll be back next year to contend with. If Interac grants my request to change schools and they relocate me, the odds of ever seeing any of them again go way down. And that would also mean four hundred more students to say farewell to. Hopefully I’ll know before the closing ceremony so I can deliver my goodbye speech to all of them at once, but just in case I’ve prepared a much shorter “In case this is our last lesson together” speech to give at the end of the last second- and first-grade lessons, which will commence next week.

But the class I was most fond of is about to disappear into memory. The ensuing sadness is inevitable, but it’s a part of life. At least this year I’m content that I was able to tell them everything I wanted to say, and that they know exactly how I feel about having had the opportunity to teach them.

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